Thomas Blaikie: It's about manners, stupid

We've left behind the age of starchy etiquette and stifling formality, only to swap it for public bingeing, loutishness and Asbos. We need to find a sensible middle way
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The Independent Online

'If it can be said of you that you've got 'exquisite manners', it's deadly. Almost as bad as having a name for being rude..." This is Nina conducting her comme il faut class in Muriel Spark's latest novel, The Finishing School. Good manners today arouse suspicion. They are too formal, they keep people at bay. Exponents perhaps need to see a therapist. At about the time sexual intercourse began (ie 1963), we waved a relieved goodbye to manners. And we don't want to see them back again. Just think of what people used to put up with - women cramming on a hat every time they went out, all that fuss about table manners (in one school, the little boys were subject to conversation lessons and the topic was: the position in which the knife and fork should be left when you've finished eating).

'If it can be said of you that you've got 'exquisite manners', it's deadly. Almost as bad as having a name for being rude..." This is Nina conducting her comme il faut class in Muriel Spark's latest novel, The Finishing School. Good manners today arouse suspicion. They are too formal, they keep people at bay. Exponents perhaps need to see a therapist. At about the time sexual intercourse began (ie 1963), we waved a relieved goodbye to manners. And we don't want to see them back again. Just think of what people used to put up with - women cramming on a hat every time they went out, all that fuss about table manners (in one school, the little boys were subject to conversation lessons and the topic was: the position in which the knife and fork should be left when you've finished eating).

There was a pernicious class aspect to it. If you didn't know how to address an earl, you weren't a gentleman. The whole thing got so crazily elaborate as well. One etiquette book of 1948 devotes pages to the painful question of whether or not a man should remove his hat in a lift, the dilemma being, apparently, that it is difficult to determine whether a lift should be considered as indoors or outdoors.

But never let it be said now that we have no manners. We have informality, we are relaxed and happy. Our guests must never be made to feel that they have done anything wrong. If they come an hour late we don't mind, we tell them it doesn't matter. Even when they don't turn up at all we'd never dream of making a fuss. When somebody's behaviour really can't be overlooked, we laugh it off, we play it down: "It's just high spirits," we mutter to each other when a raving horde of schoolchildren takes over the bus. Even Tony Blair was caught at it when John Prescott got involved in a brawl with egg-throwing Craig Evans. "John is John," he said with a smile.

This is one way of looking at it. It is, of course, perfect politeness to ignore the unpleasant. It has, ironically, an old-fashioned ring to it, recalling the Edwardian hostess who, showing a particularly virginal girl round the house, came across a couple bonking on the floor: "Ah, mending the carpet," she said. "How kind!" But this attitude takes some effort to maintain. Might it be that our smiles of tolerance and acceptance are wearing a little thin?

Yes, they are. Guess what - Lynne Truss, having discovered that people do in fact want to know the rules of punctuation, is next going to apply her "zero tolerance" approach to - that's right - manners. I hope it is not bad manners if I confess that I also have a book forthcoming on the same subject. Many newspapers and magazines have suddenly begun to publish mini-guides, ranging from the trivial - "Stick to the swimming lane that's right for you" - to the serious - "Always dump in person, not by text, fax or email." It seems that there is to be a manners industry.

What about the present national obsession with "anti-social behaviour", with teenagers ruling the streets, drunkenness - issues on which the Government will fight the next election? What is anti-social behaviour if not bad manners - dropping litter, shouting in public, riding bicycles on the pavement, generally behaving as if no one else was there. The culprits can't all be disturbed or deprived. They are living in a heady, hysterical fantasy world without boundaries where, perhaps led by someone with real problems, it is a small step to serious wrong-doing.

But if manners and standards of behaviour are to return, liberal voices are worried. Will the old battle-axes and the colonels be back telling us what to do? Might we turn into these people ourselves?

Well, not yet. So far, attempts to give guidance haven't even got off the ground, if Julian Baggini's woolly, equivocal advice in The Guardian last week is anything to go by. There is still a fear that clear rules will give offence. But this may be only a temporary blip, and the question remains. Will we return to an ice age of manners? I think not. Through manners, people can be more themselves. Where they are rational, they are liberating. It makes no sense to go to a party and ignore somebody who doesn't have anyone to talk to. It makes no sense to go out with a group of friends but for one of the group to spend substantial time talking to somebody else, who isn't there, on a mobile phone. Why be the slave of beast-like nonsensical habits?

There is a story of a woman who dismissed manners - there was no way you could make rules for everyone - but who always had to retreat in tears to her bedroom after family meals, so vile were the manners of her children. Manners are not superficial. Well-mannered people are kind people, who take notice of others. A revival of manners would mean that nobody would have to suffer in polite silence when people are late, don't return calls, don't reply to invitations, don't turn up to our party when they said they would. We need no longer wear the shallow mask of manner - we can say what we really think (in the nicest possible way, of course).

There could be liberation too from many social anxieties and misunderstandings which are like specks of grit on the surface of daily life. Which one of an estranged couple should I invite? (Do whatever suits you. It isn't your fault they got divorced.) If I take a bottle, will the hosts be offended? (Too bad if they are. It's a present. They ought to be grateful.) Will I cause offence if I don't send a thank-you note? (You thanked nicely at the door, didn't you? That is enough.)

As for anti-social behaviour, perhaps the ultimate liberation will come when we can finally shake off our chronic British fear of making a fuss. At present, when children are riding bikes dangerously on the pavement or dropping litter - no matter that there is a majority of adults present and no danger of violence - we still prefer to say nothing. Well-mannered and good-humoured intervention by adults would be effective - eventually, with persistence, with enough people getting involved. How could it not be? The present situation is crazy. Why do the majority of adults allow themselves to be held to ransom by sometimes no more than two 12-year-olds? Can the police really be expected to attend every time some children get on a bus? We're going to have to do something about it ourselves eventually.

Whatever happens, modern manners must not become like old manners - a way, through intolerance, lack of forgiveness, of being rude. New manners must take the Catholic approach to sin - it is the intention that matters. A few lapses can be overlooked. If we don't get that right, manners will again be discredited and we will end up at square one - with no manners at all.

Thomas Blaikie's 'Guide to Modern Manners' will be published by Fourth Estate in autumn 2005

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